Drums of War
By U.S. Representative John Lewis
Vol. 24, No. 3-4, 2002 pp. 3-4, 12
Remarks by Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) September 27, 2002 at the Howard University Convocation in Washington, D. C.
I was born the son of sharecroppers on a small farm outside of a little town called Troy, in the heart of rural Alabama. It is a great distance from that farm to our nation’s capital. And if you had told me when I was growing up on that farm–or sitting in for civil rights–or going on the Freedom Rides–or marching from Selma to Montgomery for the right to vote–if you had told me then that I would be here, as a Member of Congress, I would have told you “you’re crazy, you’re out of your mind, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
As a nation and a people, we have come a great distance since I grew up in what was then the segregated South. We have seen the end of Jim Crow and legal segregation. We have seen African Americans elected to office in great numbers. In my home state of Georgia, four of the thirteen Members of Congress are African-American.
For all the distance we have traveled, we still have many miles to go. The scars and stains of racism remain deeply embedded in our society. A worsening economy and growing national deficits threaten the well-being of all our citizens. We continue to poison the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.
Rising health care costs threaten to deprive more and more people of basic medical care. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again. Health care is not a privilege; it is a right. We have a moral obligation to care for those who are ill, sick, and disabled.
We really cannot look to our President to address these problems. He is too busy beating the drums of war. While beating the drums of war, President Bush hopes that we do not hear the victims of Enron, WorldCom, and Global Crossing. He hopes that we do not hear the cries of the homeless. He hopes that we do not hear seniors who cannot afford their medicine. He hopes that we do not hear young people for whom Social Security may not exist. No, we cannot look to the President for answers. Nor can we rely on others to make America as great as she can be.
Look to your left. Look to your right. Look in the mirror, and you will see the answer to the problems that confront our nation–and the world. You will see the leaders of tomorrow. You can make a difference. You can change the world. Mother generation of students had a dream-a dream that we could build the Beloved Community–an all-inclusive community–a community at peace with itself.
During the 1960s, I saw many young people–many students–grow up by sitting down. By sitting down and sitting in, they were standing up and speaking out for what is best in America: Justice. Equality. Freedom.
Because these students decided to act, we witnessed nothing less than a non-violent revolution under the rule of law. A revolution of values, a revolution of ideas.
Our struggle in the American South was not a struggle against people, but a struggle against bad laws, bad customs and bad traditions. We were not fighting Alabama Governor George Wallace, or Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor, or Selma Sheriff Clark, who beat us, fired tear gas at us and trampled us with horses. We were fighting Jim Crow, literacy tests, and poll taxes. We were fighting a system that tried to deny us the civil liberties we exercised in order to gain civil rights. I often think that if we had the technology we have today, I don’t know what the Civil Rights Movement could have accomplished. We didn’t have a web site, a fax machine, or a cellular telephone. We didn’t even have CNN or computers.
But we did have the Constitution on our side. And the Bill of Rights. And we had ourselves–ordinary people–
men and women just like you–fighting for a just cause.
We literally put our bodies on the line. We used extra-legal means and methods to remove many of the scars, stains, and symbols of racism.
Despite all of the progress we have made, too many of us–black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American–are being left out and left behind. Now it is your generation’s turn. It is up to you to make a difference. It is up to you to change the world.
You must dream dreams and make them real. Your generation must not be content to sit in the stadium of life as observers, you must enter the arena as participants and do what you can to make our society a better place. Do not accept injustice, inequity and intolerance. Find a way to get in the way.
When I was growing up in Alabama, my mother and father would tell me not to get in trouble. But I got in the way; I got in trouble. And it was good trouble–it was necessary trouble. You must be maladjusted to the problems and conditions of today.
As Horace Mann, the father of modern education in America, once said, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” But it is not enough for us to win victories only for the humanity that lives on our shores.
Recently we recognized the anniversary of one of the most tragic and terrible events in our nation’s history. On September 11, 2001, terror came to America’s shores. Nineteen men, inspired by a radical faction of Islam, killed more than three thousand Americans. Three thousand innocent civilians. Three thousand men, women, and children.
In New York, the terrorists targeted the World Trade Center. They attacked the World Trade Center because they viewed the towers as a symbol of America. And they were right. But it was not the capital, commerce, and finance that symbolized America. It was the people who worked–and died–there. Side by side, shoulder-to-shoulder, hand in hand, black died with white. Muslim died with Jew. Pakistani died with Indian. English died with Irish. Under the rubble of the World Trade Center Towers, tattered and torn, lay part of the great mosaic that constitutes the American quilt.
We live in a nation that dominates the world with great power and strength. Socially, culturally, economically, and militarily, we have no peer. American ingenuity, freedom, and democracy have conquered the world. It is a battle we did not win with guns, or tanks, or bombs, or missiles–but with ideas, values, and principles.
She may not be perfect, but the United States is the greatest nation on earth. Despite the remaining problem of race, we are the world’s most diverse, tolerant, and accepting nation. Our economy offers such hope and opportunity that people will risk their lives to come here. Our fundamental values of democracy, freedom, and equality have grown steadfast over the two hundred plus years of our history.
We must not allow our success and our strength to make us complacent or arrogant. Being complacent makes us more vulnerable to terrorist attacks like the ones we experienced last year. Being arrogant will lead us–unilaterally–to war.
When the community of nations looks at the United States today, they do not see a shining city on the hill. They see a President furiously beating the drums of war. Every day, every hour, the President and his advisors ignore the world’s problems to demonize the second coming of Saddam Hussein.
It makes me so sad to see the President, the Commander in Chief, going from state to state, from city to city, beating the drums of war. Instead of educating our children, we will teach Arab children the hardships of war. Instead of concerning ourselves with the pollution that poisons our air, water, and food, we worry about the poisons that may or may not exist in a desert five thousands miles away.
Bombing Baghdad may make is forget about our nation’s poor schools, but it will not educate our children. Invading Iraq may distract us from corporate scandals, but it will do nothing to replenish the nest eggs of American workers.
For every black man in college–for every black man with a college degree–there is a brother in jail. How will war solve this problem? How will war keep our youth from robbing, stealing, doping, and killing?
Still, our President proposes war. He proposes that we, the strongest nation on earth, invade a sovereign nation. He asks that we go to war unattacked–unprovoked–unilaterally. This I cannot and will not support.
It is time to lay down the instruments and tools of violence. War as an instrument of our foreign policy is obsolete.
I truly believe we must give peace a chance. War is bloody, it is vicious, it is evil, and it is messy. War destroys the dreams, the hopes, and aspirations of people. I urge the President and his national security and military advisors to heed the words of the spiritual–“I am going to lay my burden down, down by the riverside. I ain’t gonna study war no more.” As a great nation and blessed people, we should be moved by the wisdom of that song.
If September 11 teaches us anything, it is that we are not immune from the strife, hatred, and zealotry that
plague the world. War does not end strife–it sows it. War does not end hatred–it feeds it. War does not end zealotry–it spawns it.
Faced with poverty, ignorance and discontent, how do we help our brothers, our sisters–and ourselves? The quest for peace is as old as the dawn of history–and as fresh as the morning dew. One day, a great nation will offer a different way, a better way, a more excellent way–a way of peace–a way of nonviolence.
We must use our resources–not to make bombs and guns–but to solve the problems that effect humankind. We must feed the stomach, clothe naked bodies, educate and stimulate the mind. That is the direction in which a great nation should move.
As Mohandas Gandhi said, “the choice is nonviolence or nonexistence.” Or, as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, ‘We must learn to live together as brother and sister, or perish as fools.”
For those who say that war is a necessary evil, I say you are half right. War is evil. But it is not necessary. War cannot be a necessary evil, because nonviolence is a necessary good. The two cannot coexist. As Americans as human beings–as citizens of the world–as moral actors–we must embrace the good and reject the evil.
We must beat our swords into plowshares and study war no more. It is my deepest hope, my prayer, that the lives and teaching of Gandhi and Dr. King will inspire you–that you will seek, and accept, and embrace the philosophy of nonviolence–that you will build the Beloved Community.
Congressman John Lewis, (D) represents Georgia’s Fifth District in the U.S. House of Representatives, serving there since 1986. Lewis led the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, a critical event leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. He also directed the Southern Regional Council’s Voter Education Project from 1970 to 1977